Expert supporters and over-caffeinated critics

By Steve Outing

OK, I knew when I wrote my last Editor & Publisher Online column on climate change and media coverage of it that I’d annoy some people. Some journalists didn’t like my message, as well as some of the expected global warming skeptics. This week criticism of me was stepped up a notch with a blog item by WashingtonPost.com’s Joel Achenbach. In “The Worst Column Ever,” he lobbed invectives such as these at me:

“I nearly hurled when I read this stupid column in Editor & Publisher saying that reporters should be less objective and more opinionated. I don’t just disagree: I spit on the fool who extruded this detestable putrescence.”

“The brain-dead columnist, Steve Outing, writes…”

Actually, later in the piece he did calm down and wrote:

“Update: Obviously your blogger had too much coffee. Invective intended satirically, ya dig.”

Then there was the staffer of a right-wing US senator from Oklahoma (Inhofe) who e-mailed me this week to suggest that I really should “retract” my column since there’s no solid evidence that global warming is real. (Umm, no thanks.)

On the other side, I was obviously more pleased by the item from climate scientist Robert Jacob in his blog, Climate Spin (“A climate scientist looks at the traditional media’s coverage of global warming and what should be done about it”). Jacob leaps to my aid against the attackers:

“Mr. Outing’s inbox was apparently filled with flames from a few newspaper people and some denier usual suspects. Lets let him know his views are appreciated.”

That some support comes from people who are actually experts on the topic of climate change give me solace.

The blogger “inel” (I can’t figure out who this person is) also had some thoughtful comments on my column:

“It seemed to me that many writers who complained about Steve Outing’s stance seem to miss the point that objectivity has been redefined by the American media and is actually subjectivity masquerading under another name.”

inel did make one very good point, and I’ll own up to making a mistake with the column. inel wrote:

“I think it is unfortunate that Mr. Outing chose (as I presume he did, though maybe the title was chosen by the editor of Editor and Publisher?) to call upon newspapers to ‘Get Over Objectivity’ in his title, as it sounds like he is commanding people to be subjective, which he is not. Many of the comments assume that angle, and criticise Outing for suggesting something he did not say (i.e. he did not order ‘Be Subjective!’), but they read that as implied in the title. The word ‘Objectivity’ is too loaded — at the same time as being ‘definitionally vague’ — to be useful in this situation. …

“If Steve Outing had emphasised accuracy and impartiality in the title of his opinion piece, and had called on newspapers to serve the public interest, he would have launched the discussion on a completely different footing.”

I agree entirely with that. It was a mistake to use that headline — and I can’t blame my editor at E&P, because I wrote it and E&P didn’t object. “Objective” is such a loaded word, and I now wish I’d chosen other wording. Since my critics took me as saying to journalists “stop being objective,” that prevented them from hearing my actual message — which was to find the truth and stop being prevented from doing that by cowering to a small group of vocal skeptics bent on preventing any actual political progress on moving toward a solution.

I have a couple more points I want to make on this topic based on some other global warming news, but those will be in subsequent blog items.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

6 Responses to "Expert supporters and over-caffeinated critics"

  1. Joel Achenbach
    Joel Achenbach 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve: I really should have tried the decaf. Mostly I was making a perhaps not entirely transparent ironical humoricism in which I defended non-opinionated writing using inflammatorical vocabulary. Does that make any sense? (Don’t answer that.) And I was taking advantage of yet another opportunity to use the phrase “detestable putrescence.”

    I basically agree with you that “balance” can be ridiculous in some circumstances, i.e., when one side has all the facts and the other is just obfuscating.

    But I didn’t think the Revkin article had anything wrong with it. In fact Revkin was shooting down the significance of the blogger-fed frenzy regarding the refined climate data. He did a good job, I think.

    And more generally, I believe that the public is well served by reporters who are non-aligned, independent, and, yes, “objective,” even though that’s a loaded word and no one is truly entirely objective about anything (except that I’m objective about the wonderfulness of my progeny).

    Thanks. Good luck with the blog.

  2. Joel Achenbach
    Joel Achenbach 9 years ago .Reply

    Steve: I really should have tried the decaf. Mostly I was making a perhaps not entirely transparent ironical humoricism in which I defended non-opinionated writing using inflammatorical vocabulary. Does that make any sense? (Don't answer that.) And I was taking advantage of yet another opportunity to use the phrase "detestable putrescence." I basically agree with you that "balance" can be ridiculous in some circumstances, i.e., when one side has all the facts and the other is just obfuscating. But I didn't think the Revkin article had anything wrong with it. In fact Revkin was shooting down the significance of the blogger-fed frenzy regarding the refined climate data. He did a good job, I think. And more generally, I believe that the public is well served by reporters who are non-aligned, independent, and, yes, "objective," even though that's a loaded word and no one is truly entirely objective about anything (except that I'm objective about the wonderfulness of my progeny). Thanks. Good luck with the blog.

  3. yellojkt
    yellojkt 9 years ago .Reply

    Joel’s humor is rather subtle. It’s something he learned from Dave Barry, the master of fart jokes. By mocking you, I think he likes you.

  4. yellojkt
    yellojkt 9 years ago .Reply

    Joel's humor is rather subtle. It's something he learned from Dave Barry, the master of fart jokes. By mocking you, I think he likes you.

  5. ScienceTim
    ScienceTim 9 years ago .Reply

    I disagree with the notion of assuming a specific advocacy or “non-objective” position in reporting a factual story, as opposed to opinion commentary. To do so is to yield the expectation of serious reading by those who do not already agree with your subjective views. I recognize that you are not really advocating the replacement of objectivity by subjectivity, but it seems clear that that is how “advocacy reporting” wouold be perceived. It is not necessary to abandon objectivity, however, in order to come to a reasoned and dispassionate judgment. In fact, it’s the essence of science and jurisprudence. We expect that judges, juries, doctors, and scientists strive for this standard every day.

    Real objectivity too often is displaced by the false objectivity of giving equal time and equal weight to every notion, giving equal (or equal-ish) opportunity to every viewpoint. Some viewpoints clearly don’t deserve such benefit. Better would be to give equal opportunity to every voice, so that the democratic process could drown out the few nitwits.

    The problem with a democratic approach to “objective” reporting and decision-making, is that truth is not a popularity contest. Objective reporting, objective analysis, and objective judgment should, eventually, be able to lead us to a close approximation of truth, even if that truth has not previously been perceived and is thus unpopular at the outset.

  6. ScienceTim
    ScienceTim 9 years ago .Reply

    I disagree with the notion of assuming a specific advocacy or "non-objective" position in reporting a factual story, as opposed to opinion commentary. To do so is to yield the expectation of serious reading by those who do not already agree with your subjective views. I recognize that you are not really advocating the replacement of objectivity by subjectivity, but it seems clear that that is how "advocacy reporting" wouold be perceived. It is not necessary to abandon objectivity, however, in order to come to a reasoned and dispassionate judgment. In fact, it's the essence of science and jurisprudence. We expect that judges, juries, doctors, and scientists strive for this standard every day. Real objectivity too often is displaced by the false objectivity of giving equal time and equal weight to every notion, giving equal (or equal-ish) opportunity to every viewpoint. Some viewpoints clearly don't deserve such benefit. Better would be to give equal opportunity to every voice, so that the democratic process could drown out the few nitwits. The problem with a democratic approach to "objective" reporting and decision-making, is that truth is not a popularity contest. Objective reporting, objective analysis, and objective judgment should, eventually, be able to lead us to a close approximation of truth, even if that truth has not previously been perceived and is thus unpopular at the outset.

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